Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Officer, this man stole my authenticity!"

Freddie deBoer is exactly right about how annoying this Hillary Kelly post is. As Freddie points out, it assumes the absoluteness of a distinction that just doesn’t apply absolutely in many places — and, I might add, even when it does apply it doesn’t always apply in the same way. In America we tend to think of the suburbs as refuges for the economically comfortable, while the poor are confined to inner cities; but the relationship between Paris and its banlieues is almost the opposite.  

But what interests me about Kelly’s post is how intensely moralistic her language is. No doubt she would say that she’s exaggerating for effect, but I don’t think that she’d deny that she’s perfectly serious about her point. It’s a classic example of pink-police-state-style boundary policing — but in this case with actual (if highly artificial) boundaries. People from, say, Media who tell folks they’re from Philadelphia are not just simplifying for conversational ease, they are liars. They are fabulists.  

As a great man once said, Why so serious? It can only be because for Kelly being from the city is a mark of authenticity — and being from the burbs is necessarily and tragically inauthentic. Therefore to claim to be from the city when you’re not is an attempt to surreptitiously and dishonestly appropriate urbanite charisma. Being urban is gritty, it’s real; being from the suburbs is vacuous, bland — or so we’re told, even though we know that at best that’s a vague generalization. Kelly elevates a statistical probability into an ontological principle. Which is just silly.  

I was born and raised in the city of Birmingham, Alabama; my wife was raised mainly in one of the over-the-mountain white suburbs. Both of us have always told strangers we’re from Birmingham, and the idea that my wife could be called a liar or a fabulist for saying that strikes me as utterly bizarre. It provides the necessary information without burdening the people we meet with pedantic detail. If we get to know them better we can explore the differences in our upbringing.  

Of all the things to get outraged about! 


  • Random thoughts/observations on rootedness (also referencing your TAC post):

    1. I'm sort of the opposite of you. I lived in (the suburbs!) of Philly during 3 years of high school. I went to central PA for college, and only came home on breaks. After my sophomore year, I didn't even come home for the summers. I have never actually lived anywhere near Philadelphia since 1998. And yet, I feel very strongly that it is my home and I am from Philly. Not sure why I feel that. But I do.
    2. My dad lived in India until he was 28, and then moved to Jamaica for the next 30-plus years. He feels *much* more Jamaican than he does Indian. At this point even he says he's lost a lot of his Indian roots.
    3. I think you're getting at something important with the idea of multiple rootedness. I wonder if people feeling more or less "rooted" is somehow connected to a sense of community ethos. Does rootedness impact, e.g., the willingness to watch over your neighbors' children rather than calling the cops on them?
    4. Agree that short-hands "provide the necessary information without burdening the people with pedantic detail." That's why I say I'm from Philly. I am tickled she used the Philly suburb Radnor in the first paragraph of her essay. I've used that line myself.

  • Hmm. I agree with your overall (implied) analysis (of me) that it is misplaced pride that drives the irritation of the urbanite in these cases, but it’s not the only engine—the imprecision is irritating on its own merits. I live in Chicago proper, and unless I add the preface “in the city of” to the name of my home every time I say it, people tend to assume I actually live outside of Chicago. My 12-year-old daughter recently started asking me for help in navigating the “where do you live?” question, as she began to realize that the words “Chicago” and “downtown” have different meanings depending on whether you are speaking to someone in the city or in the suburbs. (In the urban lexicon, “Chicago” means “the city of Chicago” and “downtown” means, roughly, “the Loop.” But in the suburban lexicon, “Chicago” means “the greater Chicago area” and “downtown” means “the city of Chicago.”) My easily-embarrassed pre-teen is genuinely flustered by the question, “Do you live downtown?” because the correct answer differs depending on who’s asking.

    And I would gently point out that the flipside of the urbanites’ superiority complex is . . . well, whatever complex afflicts the suburbanites (I won’t presume to make the diagnosis). When I was in my 20s, I lived in Chicago and worked in the ‘burbs, and I remember more than one conversation where a co-worker would insist I must be misinformed about where I lived—sometimes going as far as asking me to cough up my bona fides in terms of my area code (this was the era predating cell phones) and/or zip code to prove it. And a perennial example: I can understand a lifelong resident of Naperville, IL, claiming Chicago as his hometown when he’s making small talk with someone in Dallas or Miami, but, really . . . what purpose is he serving when he tells someone he meets in Wheaton, IL, that he “grew up in Chicago”? I agree that the myth of urban authenticity is silly . . . but these confounded suburbanites keep perpetuating it all the same!

  • Thanks for these interesting responses! Kinda fun to compare notes on these matters.

  • Interesting your reference to "pedantic detail." Compare Kelley's mention of her love as a child for listing neighborhoods, and the delight she takes in her fiancee's presentation of his small Texas hometown. What I mean is that some people really love geography: they'll read maps for fun, shifting borders and shifting place-names are fascinating to them, they delight in exercising their memory and spatial imagination over routes , towns, neighborhoods, and regions. Other people are bored stiff by it. Do some places tend to produce more geography-lovers than others?

  • M Caswell: my comment wasn't about love (or non-love) of geography, but about how much detail you impose on someone you've just met. Better for my wife to tell a stranger she's from Birmingham than to say, "I'm from Bluff Park, one of the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama that are divided from the city by Red Mountain, which runs in a generally east-west direction and has also served for many decades now as a kind of cultural divide between the almost wholly white southern suburbs and the majority-black city...."

  • Dr. Jacobs! Surely saying, "I grew up near Birmingham" is a reasonable compromise between the extremes of saying merely "Birmingham" or the long speech you're implying is the only other alternative.

  • Susan: Really? You're seriously using your time and effort to try to instruct people you don't know in how they should describe where they come from? This is what you want to argue about? Seriously?

  • That's why I liked the fiancee's staggered Texas questions, because they let the other person pursue the details only as deeply as wanted.

    For you wife to dump that much info at once would be strange. But *in principle* I'd be interested in all those details. Hence the advantage of "outside of Birmingham, AL" as an opener?

  • Okay. I'm going to answer these questions, and then I have a question of my own.

    My answer starts with some questions: Do you know how many people live in London? If you use the definition that Susan, M Caswell, and Hillary Kelly are insisting on, then the answer is "Around 7000." Does that strike you as an accurate, or even a reasonable, answer to the question "How many people live in London?" Moreover, do you think that anyone who was born and raised in Bloomsbury or Camden Town or Soho or Hackney tells strangers that they're from "outside London" or "near London"? No. They don't. They tell people that they're from London, and rightly so. If they said that they were from "outside London" people would think they meant Milton Keynes or Windsor or something.

    This is the reason my wife says she's from Birmingham. To anyone who knows anything at all about the area, saying "near" or "outside" Birmingham would probably convey a misleading impression. People tend to think of Hoover and Pinson and Trussville as being part of Birmingham — especially people who live in those places. They think of themselves as being from Birmingham in much the same way as a person from Camden Town thinks of herself as being from London. Of course, to explain all this, you'd need to go into the kind of detail that, as I've said, I don't think is particularly polite.

    These kinds of distinctions vary from place to place, of course. So people use their judgment based on how the categories work in the world they come from. Which seems to be an eminently reasonable thing to do — or at least a perfectly acceptable thing to do.

    So that's my answer. And it leads my question: Why do you folks care? How can it possibly matter to you or Hillary Kelly or anybody else how people you don't know describe where they're from? Or all the things on the internet or in the world that you could turn a critical eye of scrutiny upon, you choose this? Please explain it to me. And then maybe I will begin to understand the impulse towards relentless policing of the trivial that I find such a troubling aspect of our society. If we can't live and let live about this, about what can we live and let live?

  • Very nice. After this comment I better see the connections to your earlier writing on PPS / hygiene.

    I just re-read Kelly's piece. Here's another line of analysis. I think it's more than "urban elitism" (her words) or the fact she wants to police the trivial. Part of the problem is that Kelly doesn't realize many people simply don't want to engage in deep conversation the first time they meet someone. Sorry if this comes off as ad hominen, but I wonder if she understands that many people may not initially find her that interesting. Many people may want to say as little as possible.

    Take this sentence: "And from there, it’s just a few more words of explanation to start coloring in the details of your upbringing."

    And how about this: "The deeper problem with Faux Urbanites is they’re doing a disservice to both their own hometowns—are you so ashamed to say where you’re from?—and to the art of conversation itself. After all, the point of asking the question “Where are you from?” isn’t to quickly hear the answer and get it out of the way. It’s to start a conversation that illuminates how your life experiences have shaped you."

    Good grief! Really? I've asked the "where are you from" question many times. I don't recall ever trying to make a deep connection or illuminate anything. It's almost always been about making small talk. In fact, I want to quickly hear the answer and get it out of the way. Who is she to tell me what the "point" of that question is?

    I am very extroverted, but even I rarely want to tell someone new the "life experiences that have shaped me." I sure as hell don't want to color in the details of my upbringing. Why does she assume people *want* to tell her these things? Laziness rather than dishonesty is a much better explanation for how people converse.

    I'm definitely not ashamed of where I'm from. But especially at informal gatherings, I'm more interested in the chips and dip than talking to someone I know I'll never see again.

    [Rant over.]

  • +1 for the chips and dip!

  • I have absolutely no interest in policing small talk. No answer to "where is x?" is wrong just because it is approximate or imprecise, and it's truly ridiculous to call it a "lie."

    On the other hand, this is not only true:

    "These kinds of distinctions vary from place to place, of course. So people use their judgment based on how the categories work in the world they come from."

    I find it pretty interesting, as small talk goes! I like finding out how these differences play out in concrete cases, and hopefully I manage to do so without being rude or boring. Beats talking about the weather, in my book. ​

  • As I recollect an article read long ago, the term "Espana" came to be used by pilgrims on Santiago route to refer to all the Christian kingdoms beyond the Pyrenees, since they couldn't be bothered on the details of Navarre, Castille, Leon, etc. The natives came to think of themselves as being part of a collective Espana, to some extent, not just in collective opposition to the Moors, but because they adopted the loose sobriquet applied by (in essence) tourists from France. Collective looseness, rather than local precision, became some part of the national identity.

    Not entirely analogous. But the Empire of Philadelphia will be headed by Radnorites and Medialorians, come the day.

  • Curious how such a trifling article made it into (virtual) print and then sparked layers of analysis and discussion. Price of rice in China, anyone?

    It’s beyond obvious that everyone adjusts their speech to accommodate the receiver of the intended message, which adjustments are fluid and dynamic across a variety of spectra (age, social position, venue, etc.). Imprecision is an efficiency when a full answer is neither warranted nor desired. This does not rise to the level of lying, maybe not even fudging, except perhaps to literalist school marms who feel no compunction about instructing others even when no such instruction is necessary.

    The other aspect of personal identity that comes to mind as a subject of (rank!) imprecision is age, where young people often strain to seem older (“I’m 13 in four months”) and older people strain to seem younger (“I’m still 29 ”). Kids’ ages are often given in half-years. No one would think to accuse someone obviously fudging their age of lying, and even those who are straight-up liars mostly get a pass on it.

    Such conventions are borne out of manners and consideration. If someone where outright lying about growing up in NYC when in fact he or she came from, say, Salina, KS, well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. But that’s not under the microscope. Kelly’s implications are that folks are jockeying for position, cachet, status, and supposed urban hipness. Maybe that’s true if one is in seventh grade. BTW, I also live in Chicago, but which part specifically I won’t say because, really, who cares?

  • A little late in the game, but my own personal experience is much like what Alan is arguing for. I am from Daytona Beach, FL—well actually a town called Holly Hill that is sandwiched by Daytona Proper. The "Daytona Beach Area" is actually made up of Ormond Beach, Ormond by the Sea, Holly Hill, South Daytona, Daytona Beach, Wilbur by the Sea, Ponce Inlet, and Port Orange. Those separate municipalities are so conjoined that it would be ridiculous to speak of them separately and no one who lives in any of those cities sees themselves as "not from Daytona." I lived in Holly Hill, worked in Ormond, and went to church in Daytona, while I went to high school in Port Orange... anyway.

    I think the judgement should be on the individual's conscience. If one knowingly misrepresents one's origin to try to sound hip, then I guess that's a problem (mainly on the internal level), however if one is simply communicating most succinctly where they are from with no intention to mislead—but to make things clearer—then carry on.

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